archetypal scene of the educational process is for most of us a child and a teaching sitting next to each other, their heads bowed together intently over a book. It is an island, in this high-tech world in which we live, of the low-tech: A world that depends upon communication and human interactions rather than machines and gadgets. Education seems to be one of those realms in which it is still possible to believe in and practice the humanistic arts.
But this idealized picture of the teaching process is, like so many idealized pictures, not exactly accurate - as well as being a little out of date. Education has, in fact, always made use of technology in our human attempt to pass onto each new generation what the generation before it holds to be important. Slate boards and books were high-tech in their own time - and most children now use calculators and computers. The question on the nature of the relationship between education and technology should not, therefore, be "How can we prevent technology from corrupting the process of education?" But rather "How can we use technology most effectively and yet also most appropriately in the process of education?"
Technology tends to be appealing on its own (most of us deep down have a pretty compelling attraction for gadgets). This is no doubt for many the root of their distrust of having technology become too important in the education process is that they fear that the machines and gadgets will become an end in themselves rather than a tool in the process of education. The most important question in considering how technological advances should be incorporated into the educational process must always consider the appropriateness of the technology being employed.
The next most important question to ask is what form of education is at issue - teaching the names of colors to preschoolers or advanced physics to graduate students? This paper will focus on the use of technology in the elementary grades. This is not to imply that issues about the appropriate blending of technology and education do not come up in other educational arena. However, the question of how best to use technology in education has perhaps just a touch more importance for elementary-age children.
Children below this age - those toddlers learning their colors, for example - are generally given relatively low-tech tools to use (crayons are certainly a form of technology, but they are generally already used in an appropriate manner - if we exclude the times when children use them as projectile weapons and add crayon shavings to their snack foods). Students in high school are grown, by virtue of having some fairly considerable experience in their culture, relatively sophisticated about the ways in which technology can and should be used.
But children in between, during their elementary years, do not yet have a great deal of experience with or sophistication about technology, and so it must be introduced into their school lives with great care. And yet, at the same time, because children at this age are capable of such (to adults) astonishing feats of learning, every attempt must also be used to incorporate appropriate technology into their lives in such a way that they can make the best possible use of their education during their first years at school.
Having decided to focus on the elementary education level, we may at this time want to focus our examination of the interaction of technology and education still more closely. In doing so - or at least in attempting to do so - w come to the crux of this project, which is to determine in what arenas of primary education can technology be most profitably employed.
We should, before proceeding, define what we mean by "technology" because the term covers a great deal of ground. Technology is simply the use of tools to make various kinds of work easier, and by this definition pencils are technological devices - as, for that matter, are tables and chairs. Certainly these devices do make our lives easier, and certainly it is easier to teach when children are sitting at desks or tables with a roof over their heads (luxuries that of course not all students and teachers have).
But given that most American schoolchildren have access to such basic technologies (and given that their use in school is no longer questioned), we shall focus here on what we may loosely (if rather redundantly) call high-tech technology. Specifically this includes the use of computers and their associated technologies (printers, scanners, etc.) as well as the use of various forms of multi-media teaching technologies such as video in the classroom.
This, then, brings us to the question that we are considering in this paper: How can high-tech devices be best used to educate elementary schoolchildren? A slightly different way of phrasing this question may make it easier for us to frame a reply: Which populations of elementary schoolchildren can be best served with high-tech tools?
One of these populations is those children who are studying science (which should be all elementary schoolchildren at some point during their education). Science is for many children - as well as for many teachers - one of the most challenging subjects to study and master. This is true for a number of different reasons, although for many the most important reason is the fact that in the study of science (even at the elementary-school level) the concepts involved are cognitively complex. Understanding science requires children to be able to combine the analytic skills of mathematics as well as a host of synthetic required to understand the complex natural systems that science is designed to investigate, as noted in the National Science Education Standards (1995).
To break this down into somewhat stereotypical terms but not necessarily inaccurate terms, science requires us to use both right-brain and left-brain learning techniques, and these dual demands can sometimes best be met through high-tech learning tools, as this fourth-grade teacher observes:
I've been teaching for 29 years, which means that when I started computers were not an issue in elementary education. And when the administration of the school where I taught before this one starting talking them up I was pretty skeptical. I figured it was mostly a way for computer companies to make money.
But then we installed computers in the science classroom and it made a big difference right away because it allowed children to work at their own pace. Some kids get all tangled up in the math involved, and some get the math but they can't see the big picture that you're talking about, and if it's just you talking to the whole class about science you're always losing one half or the other.
But with the science software that we use - and especially now, because the software has gotten a lot better - children can spend time on the parts that they don't understand. Which means that when you do projects together in class, we can all work together.
As Raizen and Britton argue, one of the greatest challenges of science education is the fact that so much of science is abstract. Computer technologies can create realistic models of things that children cannot see, and this can be in large measure ameliorated by use of computers. This sixth-grade teacher describes this phenomenon:
We used to have 3-D models of molecules made out of these rods and spheres - kind of like over-sized tinker toys. And to me they made a lot of sense. I could look at them and visualize how molecules really look.
But I've had a lot of children that they just didn't work for. I still have them, but now we mostly use a program that allows children to manipulate the molecules on the screen and to look at them from all angles - and to pull them apart into "atoms" and then put them back together.
Since we've been using this program, it's amazing how much more quickly children understand how molecules work. It's made a believer out of them and me.
High-tech tools in the teaching of science may also help teachers instill a high degree of scientific literacy in their students through helping teachers avoid the tendency to present scientific information as isolated facts that must be memorized. As Lingelbach & Purcell (2000) argue, science is both most engaging and most easily learned by the young when scientific knowledge is introduced as a collection of interrelated facts. Kuykendall (1992) summarizes the case for the especial importance of multi-pronged, integrated approach to science for minority students.
This teacher, who currently teaches seventh-grade science but who taught fifth and sixth grade for the past 14 years, believes that computer-based science education helps link science to the world of nature.
A lot of the children that I work with have no realistic chance - or desire - of growing up to be scientists. The two…